WASHINGTON - Other than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, few foreign-policy initiatives have gotten more diplomatic attention from the Bush administration recently than thawing its chilly relationship with Russia.
Twice in the last 10 months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have been sent on joint missions to convince the Kremlin that it should cooperate on such issues as missile defense and nuclear proliferation.
But the conflict in Georgia has left efforts to engage Russia in disarray, and there are increasing signs that administration hard-liners are using the crisis to reassert their view that Moscow should be isolated.
Some experts heard Vice President Cheney's declaration Saturday that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered" as the first salvo of what could be a new battle over administration policy.
Some conservatives think the administration has not been tough enough with Russia. Frederick W. Kagan, a neoconservative scholar who has advised the administration, praised Cheney's comment and faulted President Bush for failing to outline to the Russians the consequences of pressing their assault.
Kagan and others are gathering arguments for the policy deliberations already under way on how to deal with the aftermath of the Georgian crisis. Some administration officials are likely to press for dropping Russia from the G8, which consists of the seven major industrial countries and Russia, and blocking its admission into the World Trade Organization. The United States also could pledge to rebuild the Georgian military and cut Russia out of discussion over the missile-defense system in Europe.
A tougher stance would be a significant shift for the administration, which recast its approach to Russia in Bush's second term. In March, Rice and Gates carried to then-President Vladimir V. Putin, now prime minister, a letter from Bush that tried to strike a conciliatory tone on a range of issues.
That was a contrast from the opening months of the administration, when advisers pushed the White House to pull out of arms-control treaties and propose American military bases in former Warsaw Pact countries.
"There has always seemed to be a split within the government, so a consistent policy for dealing with Russia has been absent," said James Townsend, a former Pentagon official.
Kagan said the United States should announce it will provide military aid to Georgia. Other regional experts said the United States and NATO should enforce a no-fly zone over Georgia to halt Russian air attacks.
"At what point does the West do something meaningful? Having the president backslapping with Putin at the Olympics is not a serious attempt to deal with the problem," said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, which promotes ties between North America and Europe. "The Georgians, who took us at our word when we talked about a partnership, have got to be wondering what Bush is all about."
Pentagon officials have dismissed calls for NATO combat air patrols, but Phillips said that calculation could change if Russia began strafing Tbilisi.
"The last thing Russia wants is a war with the West. If they came eye to eye with NATO warplanes, they would retreat," Phillips said.
Administration critics said the fight in the White House over Russia policy led to mixed messages being sent to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili about the willingness of the United States to support Georgia in a war with Russia.
Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who worked to expand the alliance's relationship with Russia in the 1990s, said that while Moscow may have provoked Georgia into a fight, the fact that Saakashvili took the bait by moving his forces into South Ossetia was a clear sign he believed he would have Washington's backing.
"Saakashvili thought he had room to play," Hunter said. "He did it in the mistaken belief, I believe, that he had friends" in the Bush administration.
One U.S. government analyst who works on Russian issues noted that Rice was in Tbilisi last month promising NATO membership for Georgia, telling Saakashvili publicly, "We always fight for our friends."
A senior U.S. official involved in Russia policymaking vehemently denied the administration had sent mixed messages, arguing that although Saakashvili had long received strong support from the most senior U.S. officials, Georgians had been warned not to engage Russia militarily.